After more than 10 years, I finally returned to Kampung Gumbang with my family for the 2018 Gawai Nyobeng.
Once celebrated to welcome warriors from headhunting activities, since its ban by the first White Rajah, Gawai Nyobeng is seen as a ceremony for conducting ritual bathing and feeding of the skulls that were captured by the villagers’ ancestors back in the olden days.
On June 30, I had the chance to witness the Gawai Nyobeng ritual that marked the end of the harvest month.
Journey to Kampung Gumbang
It was a Saturday and my aunt picked me up from home at 6 o’clock in the morning. There were 5 of us in the car: my aunt, cousin, mother and my aunt Roseline. My sister and her boyfriend Mike were already at the village as they were helping out with the preparation.
Before we set off to Kampung Gumbang, we had our breakfast in one of the Chinese restaurants at 7th mile. We didn’t eat much as there would be plenty of food for us to eat at the celebration.
We arrived in Kampung Gumbang at about 9 o’clock in the morning. Many things had changed at the village, from the newly paved roads to the new baruk. Some of the village houses had been renovated as well.
While there was some change in the village, lots of things have stayed the same. I still saw big rocks all around the village and got to see plenty of familiar faces. Even after so many years, the villagers still keep up with their old Gawai tradition.
It’s a good thing that my aunt Amy and her family are local residents of the village. She said we could spend a night at her place if we’d like to. Her house sits deep inside the village. To get there, we needed to walk up a hilly road. It was tiring but undeniably good exercise for everyone.
On our way up, we stumbled upon a local man. He was sitting alone by the roadside. I’d say he was actually sitting in a drain. My aunt Roseline greeted him but there was no response. He looked drunk and delusional. Maybe he was drunk…
We reached Amy’s house at about 9:30 in the morning. Her family was busy cooking.
We had tea and local food such as pulut, sio bee, and some of my uncle King’s homemade snacks for breakfast.
We also ate tebuduk, a local Bidayuh delicacy made of pulut flour and palm sugar which gets slowly cooked in bamboo. It is brown in colour and has a sticky texture. The only time I get to eat tebuduk is when Amy’s mom makes it. There are not many people who make it these days
After breakfast, we went out for a walk. That morning the sun was shining brightly. It was indeed a good time for photographing our surroundings.
Just outside of the house were bamboos sitting nicely on a fire. Inside those bamboos were meat (chicken or pork) and tapioca leaves or ‘daun bandung’. There was also pork barbecued outside not far from Amy’s house.
There were big rocks all around me and they have always fascinated me. Do you know that they once fell from the surrounding mountains?
Since we don’t always get to travel together as a family, we took the opportunity to photograph ourselves. Taking group photos is a must!
Exploring the local scene
I walked up to the baruk which is also known as the head house (a circular house with a cone-shaped roof), where I saw more people dressed in colourful Bidayuh costumes. Some of the dayaks from Kalimantan were also there for the celebration.
The celebration would be held at the baruk at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Although the ritual had not started, we could see many people at the baruk and the verandah next to it. It wasn’t just the local villagers who came to the celebration but also foreign visitors and local visitors from other villages.
As I explored the baruk, I stopped and stared at the skulls hanging on the roof. I was not allowed to point my finger at them. So I just looked at them and kept my opinions to myself.
I also took the opportunity to play with gongs and speak to my sister’s friends who came to the ceremony for research.
Not long after, I went to the verandah to snap photos of me and my family, along with the chief of the village. While I was at it, my sister’s boyfriend kept himself busy taking video of the event. You should see his video; I think it’s really well done!
At about 12 o’clock in the afternoon, we headed back to Amy’s house for lunch. She had made us a good lunch. There was sure a lot of food and my uncle King cooks very well! We drank beers and hung around the house until it was time to leave for the main event. The ritual was about to get started.
Getting to the baruk
At about 2 in the afternoon, we walked to the baruk once again to join the Gawai Nyobeng ritual. At that time, the sky was starting to get cloudy.
By the time we reached the baruk, there were already so many people crammed in the baruk, on the verandah and all around the ritual area. I went inside the baruk just for a little while but left not long after as it was starting to get a little stuffy.
I went down the stairs of the baruk and headed off to the verandah where the altar of the ritual was. There, I took as many photos as I could as well as videos of the event.
Many traditional rituals around the world require animal sacrifices. At Kampung Gumbang, livestock is used as a sacrifice. My aunt told me that a pig would be sacrificed that day. In fact, that was one of the main highlights of the day.
The participants of the ritual were all gathered at the verandah. It was difficult for me to watch everything that was happening at the time. The place was immensely crowded. What’s even more interesting is the place was even more crowded in the previous years. That’s insane!
Later, I saw the group of participants marching to the baruk as they carried a sack containing a helpless pig. It was literally squealing for its life. The pig was going to be sacrificed to the Bidayuh God and the spirits that guard the village.
In the meantime, I was watching local men shooting tree leaves using shotguns. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on and why they were doing that. Later, one of the young men next to me threw a firecracker (air bomb) to the ground and accidentally broke a water pipe. It burst and water started shooting up. How careless!
It was that moment that I also heard the captured pig squealing for its life again. This time it was squealing even louder. I supposed it was about to be sacrificed. After sometime, it stopped making noise. I believe it was already dead.
After that, the male participants came down with one of them holding a rooster in his hand. The rooster looked puzzled. I wonder if it was aware of what was going to happen next.
Soon, all the participants gathered on the verandah or tanju. They started to dance around it and cheer loudly. Their faces had red stains which looked like blood, but I found out from my sister a couple of days later that it wasn’t blood after all. Some of the males were also holding strands of leaves called daun peringat while dancing and hitting the leaves against the bodies of the people near them. The event is known as healing mass.
Suddenly, heavy rain started pouring and people quickly ran for cover. As for me, I didn’t mind the rain and continued to film the dance ritual. Despite the downpour, the ceremony had to continue. Everyone was wet.
When the rain got heavier, I decided to run for cover. While waiting for the rain to stop, I thought of the rooster I just saw. I never knew if the rooster remained alive or otherwise. It probably died. Poor rooster.
At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we walked back to Amy’s house. It was still raining. Along the way, we stopped by a communal hall for cold beverages. We saw a lot of food there, but we were not hungry. After the rain stopped, we walked back to Amy’s house.
Surviving the rain
Not long after we arrived back at Amy’s house, it started raining again. The rain was even heavier than before. Since there was nothing much to do, we continued eating and chit-chatting among ourselves.
We thought of leaving before dawn but my cousin was nowhere to be found. He was probably at his friend’s house. We couldn’t leave without him, so we decided to hang around the house a little longer.
While waiting for him, we went to the neighbour’s house. We ate so much. Some of the men were enjoying their karaoke session. As for me, I wouldn’t stop eating.
An hour later, my cousin came back. He brought his friends to the house, too. Since his friends came to the house, we stayed a little longer. The rain was too heavy for us to go anyway.
Visiting the new baruk
After 7 o’clock in the evening, we finally walked back to our car. We stopped by the newly built baruk to watch a local band perform. When we got there, most of the ritual participants were walking back home, probably to freshen up after the long day. Since we were already exhausted, we didn’t stay very long.
It’s a shame that we left early. Otherwise, we would’ve watched the bamboo climbing and inverse climbing demo (which usually takes place in the afternoon) at the old baruk.
My overall experience
Personally, I think it was a good and memorable experience. I don’t know how much longer the village will practise such a unique tradition. Although I am not always a fan of old cultures and superstitions, I do hope the younger generations will continue the Gawai Nyobeng tradition. I would love to join the celebration again in the future. I just hope that it will still be around by then.
The reason why I am saying this is because:
- The chief of the village actually said now’s the time to experience it, with him and the rest of the old people, as we’ll never know if they’re going to be around next year or the years to come.
They’re pretty old. With that in mind, I encourage people to come over next year to witness the event themselves.
Interested? Feel free to drop me a line!
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An ENTP who’s always thirsty for new adventures. Apart from music and writing, I’m also passionate about travel, art and entrepreneurship.